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Managing the Very Busy Product Owner

4 October 2016

"A man who is very busy seldom changes his opinions." — Friedrich Nietzsche

As we well know, the product owner role is fundamental to creating a great product. The person in this role performs better if he or she possesses qualities such as discipline, vision, and communication skills. Anyone is this role must also be a doer and an effective negotiator. At the start of a new Agile project, this type of person is commonly chosen to be the product owner; however, they are already responsible for many other things.

If the product owner can’t delegate a few previous responsibilities, the following types of unfavorable symptoms begin to appear soon after the project starts:
  • Missing or moving specified dates for sprint review or sprint planning, because the product owner had another appointment or commitment. This creates interruptions for everyone, including stakeholders, and also cuts the flow of the Scrum cycle.
  • Delay in creating or refining stories from the backlog. This is a real problem, and it becomes even bigger if the team runs out of stories to work on because development time was consumed or wasted. Moreover, sprint planning takes too long because the stories are not ready for refinement. Consequently, the product owner begins writing stories on the fly.
  • Lack of communication required to answer questions. A critical question that goes unanswered can stop development or can result in an implementation mistake. The development team will consume development time trying to figure out how to solve the problem or question.
To solve this situation, first talk with the product owner, but remember that being a product owner is a key role and a full-time job. Second, brief him on the emerging situations or problems. Because the product is owner is too busy, check on things that are consuming his or her time. Then, support the product owner in all Scrum activities, effectively communicate to all Scrum teams, and encourage the product owner to delegate any other responsibilities.

In addition, you should never try to help the product owner with backlog management. The Scrum Guide says, "The Product Owner is the one and only person responsible for managing the Product Backlog." What happens if you help them? The product owner thinks this is viable, and they will continue asking you for help with this task. However, the problems are many. For example, they may not know the stories, they might be misaligned with the product vision, and they could potentially waste development time. Therefore, you must avoid helping them with managing the backlog. You can, however, support them by helping the development team during the sprint planning or helping with technical questions about stories that will be implemented in the future.

To summarize, avoid having a busy product owner on your Scrum team, and spot symptoms before critical problems emerge. Support the product owners in their role but don’t do things for them. Instead, collaborate, stay close, and make their journey easier. This will maintain a healthy Scrum process, and the product owners will appreciate the difference between the "before" and "after" situations, thus improving their performance.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 3.2 (5 ratings)


Ruth Medina Barrientos, CSM, 10/4/2016 12:03:01 PM
Thanks for the article. Really informative to know better a perspective on what does the product owner do and how to support when things aren't coming up in the right way.

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